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I want to pick up on a question that I posed at the end of my last post, in which I asked, “How might the humanities, precisely in terms of some of its principal objects (art, poetry, literature, film), equip us with the means to contend, not only with the limits of humanism, but also with the end of the human?”

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This summer I have been reading and gaining a tremendous amount from Claire Colebrook’s two volumes of essays on extinction: Death of the PostHuman, and Sex After Life. At the same time, I have been crafting the course syllabi for the two seminars that I am teaching this fall term (2016).

Upon first glance, it may appear that the two seminars, “Queer Ethics & Aesthetics of Existence,” and “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” are at odds with each other. With their respective focus on questions of existence and extinction, it might seem as though the first course seeks to affirm the value of a certain form of human life, while the other seeks to consider the post-human and that which is not defined in terms of “life.” However they are in fact two major parts of a single ongoing theoretical endeavour to think what a thought and ethical-aesthetic praxis might be, in the absence or extinction of the human, life and, the living on or long-term survival of a collective “we.” Colebrook’s work has proven to be an indispensable companion as I think about these two courses in relation to each other.

Rooted as it is in the Foucault of finitude and the image of the erasure of the image of the human, “like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea,” the queer theory seminar takes Foucault’s aesthetics of existence to be not an ethics of being or becoming, but of unbecoming. An unbecoming ethics is the partaking-together in the inoperative/workless praxis of sustaining the spacing of separation—irreducible to no-thing or substance (i.e. nothing, res/rien)—that exists (exposed) just between us. An “us” that only exists from out of this shared-exposure to the outside, or what Foucault referred to as “madness, the absence of work.” Therefore, this queer aesthetics of existence is an art not of the finished work (oeuvre) but of the un-finished as that which is not given or even readymade, but already-unmade (désoeuvrement).

Further to the point, “whereas [as Claire Colebrook explains] Husserl and Bergson thought that the task that would save thought and philosophy would be the annihilation or acceleration of the natural world, and the destruction of man as a natural body within the world, today it is the possible extinction of the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics] that may allow us to consider the survival of the cosmos” (Sex After Life, 148).

If we take “the man of ethics and philosophy [and aesthetics]” to be the “man of the humanities,” then in a certain very real sense, it is this equation of the end of the humanities with the afterlife of the cosmos that both seminars are dedicated to thinking. Ethics after community, collectivity and life is an ethics of the “collective afterlife of things,” in which, following Colebrook, it is not assumed that there is a “we” (“collective”) worthy of living on (“afterlife”). Which is to begin to think an ethics of inorganic and un-livable existence. In other words, a (queer) ethics and aesthetics of extinction.

Through these seminars and in our reading of Foucault, Colebrook, but also Haver, Genet, Benderson, and Bersani, we come to the realization—without any sense of mitigating irony—that perhaps only the end of the humanities can save the cosmos now.

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Fire-411_0This course emerges out of a research project that I began a few years ago as a Faculty Research Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute (University of Toronto) in 2015-16. One of the terms of the fellowship, was that upon my return to undergraduate teaching, I would offer an advanced undergraduate seminar based upon my research project.

Like that project, also titled “The Collective Afterlife of Things,” this course is about aesthetic and philosophical responses to a collectively shared lack of confidence today in the long-term futures of three ecologies: intellectual, social, and environmental. Specifically, it is about the various possible roles that aesthetics and works of art, film, literature and poetry have in enabling us to envision and reckon with the forces of environmental devastation and extinction that we are confronted with today.

It addresses such topics, issues and questions as: the Anthropocene thesis; apocalypse; the post-human; futurity; and the very concept or reality of “ends.” It also asks about what we mean by “life,” “afterlife,” and “things” and how these relate to our sense of being-together and in-common. It is interested in those “things” that we collectively share in common: things that most of us partake of, yet none of us own or singularly possess. It seeks to consider how aesthetics and art might be principal forms of such collective things, and how a certain notion of aesthetics and artistic practices (e.g. “unfinished”, “workless”) might provide us with some of the best ways of thinking not only about the “afterlives” of people and things, but also about what might exist after life and after the human.

Simply put, this course asks about the relation between art, visual culture and extinction. In attempting to address this question, we will read, view and engage with a number of recent books, films, works of art, exhibitions and actual practitioners that—each in their own way—offer some of the most rigorous, challenging, inventive, critical and thought-provoking materializations and conceptualizations on art and (as) the possible and impossible ends of extinction. How might the humanities, precisely in terms of some of its principal objects (art, poetry, literature, film), equip us with the means to contend, not only with the limits of humanism, but also with the end of the human? In this course, we will engage with work in the theoretical humanities in which the human is defined as being always-already posthumous.

Core Readings, Films and Artists

P.D. James, Children of Men.
Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men (film).
Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.
Art and the Anthropocene, edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin.
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Catastrophe of Equivalence: After Fukushima.
Baum, Bayer, and Wagstaff, Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, exhibition catalogue, Met Breuer.
Lars von Trier, Melancholia (film).
Works by: Roni Horn, Joan Jonas, Armin Linke, Pierre Huyghe, and others.

Course Topics

Visual Culture and the Extinction of Ends
Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
Reproductive Futurity
The Collective Afterlife of Humanity
Romantic Images and Archeologies of the Future
Unfinished Art History
Art and the Ends of Extinction
Art and the Anthropocene
The Last Political (& Art) Scene
Melancholia
After Melancholia, After Fukushima

STEAM cover

“Jacking-off a Minor Architecture,” an essay that I published in 1993, has just been re-published in the online journal Keep It Dirtyin an issue on “Filth.” Editor Christian Hite approached me this past spring, believing that the essay deserved to be read—and perhaps more widely—23 years after its original publication. Having written a doctoral dissertation on masturbation and other technologies of arousal, this essay caught Hite’s attention, along with a second of mine on semen and the fluidity of body boundaries, that I had published around the same time in Gay and Lesbian Studies in Art History (edited by Whitney Davis).

To accompany the republication, I have written a preface in which I discuss the genesis of the text and its relation to emergent queer theory. While the political ethics of sex and architecture that I was experiencing, theorizing and writing about back then, have been pretty much eclipsed over the past 23 years by the very forms of bio-political governance and forces of domestication and assimilation to which queer anonymous sex stood opposite and refused, still there might be lessons to learn from a moment when, in the face of death and at the risk of life, masturbation was promiscuously communalized.

 

 

 

 

 

 

COL5127H QUEER ETHICS AND AESTHETICS
Fall 2016

Instructor: John Paul Ricco
Time: Thursdays, 2-4PM
Location: Centre for Comparative Literature, 3rd floor of Isabel Bader Theatre, Victoria University

Description
Working out from Michel Foucault’s focus on the question of ethics in his philosophical articulation of an aesthetics of existence, in this course we will read contemporary theorists whose work has been dedicated to thinking ethics and aesthetics together. Not only wholly tied to the experiences of sex and pleasure, here thinking itself is erotic. Such thought in turn provokes us to think in new ways about intimacy, friendship, betrayal, the pornographic, publics and commons, anonymity, the inorganic and the inhuman. And to trace the place of thought in each, beyond notions of the subject, identity, interiority, community, the human and life.

Authors include: Leo Bersani, William Haver, Samuel Delany, Tim Dean, Sarah Schulman, Claire Colebrook, Lauren Berlant, amongst others. In addition, we will discuss works of contemporary art, film, photography and fiction, by Hervé Guibert, Garth Greenwell, Dean Sameshima, Todd Haynes, Thomas Roma, and others.

Discussion Topics
1. Foucault’s Aesthetics of Existence
2. Infamous Men
3. Why Sex?
4. Unlimited Intimacy
5. Unbearable
6. Really Bad Infinities
7. Edge-pleasure and the Sense of the Common
8. Friendship
9. Traitorous Collaboration
10. Queer City
11. The Commerce of Anonymity
12. The Unlivable

I recently got around to reading the conversation between Tim Dean and Robyn Wiegman on the question of “critique.” It was published in a special issue of English Language Notes (51.2, Fall/Winter 2013) under the title, “What Does Critique Want? A Critical Exchange.”
Based upon their dialogue, and in light of a few other things that I have read this summer, I’ve put together the following notes on theory, queer theory, subjects/objects, reading, Foucault, aesthetics/ethics, and extinction.


In giving up on “critique,” one must also give up on all forms of the “subject” (beyond merely in terms of the critical mastery of the sovereign subject) and “objects” (including the notion that as thinkers/theorists, we have “objects” and hence that our thinking is always predicated upon, as the saying goes, “one’s relations to one’s objects”—which may or may not be distinct from “object-relations” [psychoanalysis] or “object lessons” [Wiegman]). Which would also mean re-thinking the political, outside the categories of subject and object, all the while retaining a commitment to thinking the relational (Foucault, Nancy) as the spacing of the political—irreducible to—and that which exceeds the domains of—subjects or objects, identities or things (and the “identity knowledges” that they produce). Hence the relational as always already non-relational. This entails radical re-definitions and conceptualizations of the “political” (spacing) as well as of the “ethical” (relational), in which neither would operate in the mode of being “critical.” In other words: can there be political and ethical thinking that is not, at the same time, critical—yet without being naive or without rigour?

In this regard, paranoid or reparative readings are not the only options or reading strategies available. There is also, for instance: deconstructive (inoperative, un-made) readings (which are not necessarily to be aligned with paranoid reading), and those aesthetic, literary or poetic modes of reading in which affect and sense (along with pleasure, desire, erotics) are central. Yet in ways that remain impersonal and transitive, rather than deriving from, or returning to, the individual subject who feels and becomes—the nexus of the critical and the personal (Sedgwick, et.al.) that is its own form of “performative narcissism.”

It is this strand that makes so much queer theory today not only reparative but therapeutic in its form and implicit intent. Queer Theory today has all too often become a project of coping (with life, affects, feelings, others, etc.), which is its own compensatory move vis-a-vis resentiment. In fact, what is the relation between the latter and critique—especially in terms of the ways in which critique is deployed in the humanities today (and in particular in queer theory) in the name of the political? Examples of this resentment (and its implicitly accompanying misogyny) cited in this dialogue include: why doesn’t she love us (asked by feminists about Sedgwick); critical theory and its lack of commitment to women (Gender Trouble); academic feminism using theory in order to feel smart and sexy; the aggressivity of Women’s Studies.

So also then, there is (once again) a fundamental rethinking of gender and sexual differences, and the difference these make to thinking, doing, making, and being-together outside the dialectic of subject-object—which might also be outside of gender and sexuality. The fact of the matter is that what Irving Goh has done for dominant critical theory in his recent and brilliant book, The Reject, needs to be done for hegemonic queer theory. Namely: to elucidate the extent to which it remains utterly beholden to the concept of the subject, and the ways in which Butler most especially, but also Sedgwick and a whole second generation are responsible for this unrelenting hold that the concept of the “subject” has had on the field.

This also points to the extent to which Queer Theory has betrayed the work of Foucault, which not only was a genealogy of the modern subject, but also an attempt to think “who comes after the subject” (in various forms of an ethical self in relation with others). Indeed, Nancy’s question from the late-1980s—asked after Foucault would have had a chance personally to respond—equally could have been written: “who comes after Foucault?” This is where Tim Dean’s quotation of Paul Veyne on Foucault is so incredibly important and useful. Veyne writes: “Foucault’s philosophy is not a philosophy of ‘discourse’ but a philosophy of relation…Instead of a world made up of subjects, or objects, or the dialectic between them, a world in which consciousness knows its objects in advance, targets them, or is itself what the objects make of it, we have a world in which relation is primary.” Of course this is also where the work of Leo Bersani comes in, and its commitment to thinking about ethical-aesthetic relationality in neither paranoid (aggressive) nor reparative (redemptive) ways. Further: we need to imagine the inorganic as beyond the human, and to think art and aesthetics in the absence of, and after life and the human. So not the traditional notion of art and its relation to immortality and the future, but art in relation to extinction and the posthumous. What I have been calling “the collective afterlife of things.”

It is in this respect that we are also dealing with questions of discourse and knowledge, which is to say, the  limits of knowing, and that is the primary task of theory—properly speaking—to trace. Including  in terms of that which exceeds gender and sexual categories and identities, and that as an experience of non-knowledge exceeds the epistemological (including epistemological mastery and the production of knowledge).

Theory is one of our principle relations to not-knowing, to epistemological erasure, and to extinction (ontological erasure). It is committed to thinking praxis as always inoperative (post-Marx and Arendt) and is a valence onto that which is unbecoming, un-livable and unimaginable. Such that the aesthetics of existence is the art of becoming-imperceptible and disappearing—but never enough. And where ethics wholly entails attesting to the fact that we—together-apart—are already living the time of extinction.
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